Photograph by Olivia Arthur, Story by Jessie Burton
There were four of them, arriving on the tourist ferry one late long summer afternoon, tripping down the gangplank. I was struck by their collective beauty, their youth, the golden density of their bodies. I think they were a pair of couples, but it was hard to tell, each of them slipping their arm into the others’, the girls holding hands on the beach, the boys roaming for firewood, clambering with such ease over the rocks. They seemed to weave in and out of each other, prancing with joy along the surf.
I knew they would have come for Calypso. The rumour of our monster was as old as the island. Go beyond the shore, beyond where the water changes its bands of turquoise into indigo, and out there lies Calypso. How old was Calypso? Older than the mapmakers who’d sailed here once upon a time, thousands of miles from home, when the first Queen Elizabeth’s thin buttocks sat on England’s throne. They might have marked her on a famous map – here lyeth Calyppsoe, but a monster far exceeds a human’s span of life. The permanent islanders left Calypso alone, thinking that as long as she was far out there, they’d be all right. That’s how it had been for centuries.
Betty, who was in her nineties, swore she’d seen Calypso when she was little. She still walked herself daily along the shore from the village to the top of the bluff to inhale the sea three long times. ‘Oh I saw her,’she would say. ‘On my way to school one morning, there she was, out in the water. Huge, she was. Huge!I took it for good luck, and I’ve had a good life, so maybe it was.’
‘But what did she look like, Bet?’ the islanders would ask.
Betty would close her eyes as if trying to recall her moment with the monster. ‘She didn’t look like anything I’d ever seen,’ she say.
‘Oh, come on, Bet. Was she a fish, a woman or a bird?’
‘I don’t know what she was! She weren’t any of those things. I think she was looking for something she’d lost.’
A lot of people thought Betty was fibbing or doolally, because who would see a monster and not be able to recall in detail how it looked? And what sort of monster was peaceful?
Some people said Calypso was just a big whale. Others said she was nothing at all – an old story, kept alive in the name of tourism, encouraging people to come from far away to find good luck and buy a key ring and an ice cream when they did. Some people said a prehistoric thing was indeed out there, and we weren’t to touch it.
Most tourists came and went for a laugh. But there was something different about those four, camping out there on the bluff. They set up, as was permitted in those days, a little way along the bluff. All they had was a small red tent that to a bird might have looked like a panic button.
They were so young. Two of them, a boy and a girl, came into the shop the day after the ferry had dropped them.
‘Do you sell dinghies?’ the girl asked. Her accent was unfamiliar and I couldn’t place it, but her voice was hard at the start and end of her words, as if she’d grown up in a city and had to learn how to talk like a gun. The boy hovered at the door. He was in a deep red t-shirt and my only word to describe him is haunted. The girl was different: confident, on a mission.
‘We don’t,’ I said. ‘The waters round here aren’t too safe, at any rate.
‘You want to go out in the water?’I asked.
She flashed me a look of defiance. She couldn’t have been older than sixteen. ‘I’ll swim,’ she said. ‘We can swim.’
‘There’s a big drop out there,’ I said. ‘It’s really big. The rip can pull you out. People don’t come back. I don’t recommend it.’
She smiled at me with a secret knowledge teenagers possess, as if her body would be able to resist the force of Mother Nature.
‘Hannah,’ said the boy. ‘Let’s go.’
I decided to be bold. ‘Have you come for Calypso?’ I said. At the name, she stiffened. ‘There’s an official boat tour, if you wanted.’
‘I don’t think we want an official boat tour,’ she said.
‘Hannah,’ said the boy. ‘This won’t work.’
‘We’re not in danger,’ she replied, trying to calm me. ‘I promise.’
I thought it a strange thing to say. They turned away and disappeared along the path, their heads together, clearly arguing about something. It’s what we came for! I heard her shout.
That night, when the island was asleep, I looked out of my window. The most beautiful light had spread upon the sea – as if the stars that led those early sailors here had fallen from the sky, exploding on the water’s surface. The horizon was on fire with silver. Mesmerised, I stood there till the night went black, and slept only fitfully.
At dawn I went to the bluff, and I knew something had happened. The sea was a mirror. The tent door was flapping open, and there was no sign of the youngsters. One red t-shirt was strewn across the pebbles, damp from the air. Four pairs of trainers were neatly lined up on the shore. No ferry could have come this early and picked them up.
I closed my eyes, a sick feeling spreading in my stomach. What would we tell their parents? What would we tell the police? Where were they?
Betty came along the shore towards me. ‘Calypso?’ she said, taking in the shoes, the tent, my stricken face. ‘Don’t worry.’
‘I am worried.’
Betty smiled. ‘She found what she was looking for. And so did they.’
Jessie Burton is the author of three novels, The Miniaturist (2014), and The Muse (2016), published in 38 languages, and The Confession which publishes September 2019. The Miniaturist and The Muse were Sunday Times no.1 bestsellers, New York Times bestsellers, and Radio 4's Book at Bedtime. The Miniaturist went on to sell over a million copies in its year of publication, and it was Christmas no.1 in the UK, National Book Awards Book of the Year, and Waterstones Book of the Year 2014. Jessie's first novel for children, The Restless Girls, was published in September 2018, with Medusa to follow in 2020.You can find her on Instagram at @jesskatbee, and read her answers to the TLS' 20 Questions on books and writing here.
Olivia Arthur is a London-based photographer who has worked for many years on the East-West cultural divide. Her first book Jeddah Diary was about the lives of young women in Saudi Arabia. Her second book, Stranger is a journey into Dubai seen through the eyes of the survivor of a shipwreck.Her work has been exhibited internationally and has been included in institutional collections in the UK, USA, Germany and Switzerland.She is co-founder of Fishbar, a publisher and space for photography in London.She is a member of Magnum Photos. You can find her here @oliviarthur